A type of “biodegradable” plastic will soon be phased out in Australia. This is a great benefit for the environment
To deal with the growing plastic crisis in Australia, the federal government released its first National Plastics Plan last week.
The plan calls for plastic on several fronts, e.g. B. the banning of plastic on beaches, the end of polystyrene packaging for food containers and the gradual introduction of microplastic filters in washing machines. However, we are particularly pleased that a major form of biodegradable plastic will also be phased out.
Biodegradable plastic promises a plastic that breaks down into natural components when it is no longer needed for its original purpose. The idea of a plastic that literally disappears into the ocean, scattered on land or in landfills is tempting – but also (at this point) a pipe dream.
Why “biodegradable” isn’t great
“Biodegradable” indicates that an item is made from plant-based materials. However, this is not always the case.
A major problem with “biodegradable” plastic is the lack of regulations or standards for the use of the term. This means it could and will be used to refer to all sorts of things, many of which are not good for the environment.
Many plastics labeled as biodegradable are actually conventional fossil-fueled plastics that are easily degradable (like any plastic) or even “oxodegradable” – with chemical additives turning the plastic fragment from fossil fuels into microplastics. The fragments are usually so small that they are invisible to the naked eye, but are still present in our landfills, waterways, and soils.
Read more: We composted biodegradable balloons. We found the following after 16 weeks
The National Plastics Plan aims to work with industry to phase out this problematic “fragmentable” plastic by July 2022.
Some biodegradable plastics are made from plant materials. But it is often unknown what kind of environment they would collapse in and how long that would take.
These items can be in landfills, in garbage or in the ocean for decades, if not centuries, because many plant-based plastics do not degrade faster than conventional plastics. This is because not all plant-based plastics are necessarily compostable, as the way some plant-based polymers form can make them incredibly durable.
It is therefore best to avoid all plastics marked as biodegradable. Even after the ban removes fragmentation – the worst of it – there is still no evidence that remaining types of biodegradable plastics are better for the environment.
Compostable plastics aren’t much better
Compostable plastic is another label you may have come across that is said to be more environmentally friendly. It was specially developed to break down into natural, non-toxic components under certain conditions.
In contrast to biodegradable plastics, there are certification standards for compostable plastics. Therefore, it is important to check one of the following labels. If an item does not have a certification label, there is nothing to say that it is not some form of mislabeled “biodegradable” plastic.
However, most certified compostable plastics are only suitable for industrial composts that reach very high temperatures. This means they are unlikely to break down sufficiently in household compost. Even those certified as “home compostable” are rated in perfect laboratory conditions that are not easily accessible in the back yard.
And while certified compostable plastics are on the rise, the number of industrial composting facilities that will actually accept them just can’t keep up.
There are also no collection systems that allow you to get your plastics into these facilities. The vast majority of roadside organic recycling bins do not currently accept compostable plastics and other packaging. This means that putting compostable plastics in these containers is considered contamination.
Even if you can get your certified compostable plastics to a suitable facility, composting plastics actually reduces their economic value as they can no longer be used in packaging and products. Instead, they are only valuable for returning nutrients to the soil and potentially recovering a fraction of the energy used to create them.
If you don’t have a proper collection system and your compostable plastic ends up in a landfill, it may be even worse than regular plastic. Compostable plastics could release methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – into landfills, just like food waste.
As such, you should only consider compostable plastics if you have a facility to house them and a way to get them there.
While the National Plastics Plan and National Packaging Targets aim for at least 70% of plastics to be recovered (including through composting) by 2025, nothing has been said about how collection systems will be supported to achieve this.
Does recycling help?
Only an estimated 9% of plastics worldwide (and 18% in Australia) are actually recycled. The majority ends up in landfills and can end up in our oceans and natural environments.
In Australia, systems for recycling the most common types of plastic packaging are well established and in many cases function adequately. However, there are still major problems.
For example, many of the plastic items in our curb baskets cannot be recycled (including soft and flexible plastics like bags and cling film, and small items like bottle tops, plastic cutlery and straws). Placing these items in your roadside trash can pollute recycling and even damage the sorting machines.
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In addition, much of the plastic collected for recycling does not have high quality “end markets”. Only two types of plastic – PET (think water or soft drink bottles and some detergent containers) and HDPE (milk bottles, shampoo / conditioner / detergent containers) – can easily be turned back into new plastic containers.
The rest ends up in a stream called “mixed plastics”, of which we have traditionally exported overseas for recycling due to the low demand here. The new waste export ban could help fix this in the future.
University Technology Sydney, Author provided
What do you do with plastic
The obvious answer, then, is to completely get rid of problematic plastics, as the National Plastics Plan seeks, and replace single-use plastics with reusable alternatives.
Small measures like bringing your reusable water bottle, coffee mug, and cutlery with you can make big changes if properly supported by businesses and government agencies to bring about a major cultural change. Might also move away from the insidious coffee pods, cling film, and cotton swabs that so many of us depend on.
Choosing plastic items made from recycled materials can have a major impact on the feasibility of plastic recycling.
If you end up with plastic on your hands, take a quick look at the graphic above or read University Technology Sydney’s detailed plastic disposal decision guide.
Read more: How to Break Up With Plastics (Using Behavioral Science)